World can rid itself of extreme poverty, but only if it also tackles inequality

Mayling Chan says world can end poverty within a lifetime by dealing with inequality and climate change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2015, 4:56pm

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor recently announced a slight drop in the number of people living below the poverty line, but that figure still stands at over 1.3 million. With one of the widest wealth gaps in the world, this should come as no surprise. Not only has inequality plagued Hong Kong, forcing the most vulnerable to live on the margins of society, it has also become one of the greatest obstacles to poverty alleviation worldwide.

READ MORE: Who is poor in Hong Kong? Chief secretary Carrie Lam's comment at poverty summit sparks debate over definition

Over the years, we have seen the wealth gap widen locally. According to Credit Suisse, the wealthiest 1 per cent in Hong Kong owns 52.6 per cent of the city's wealth, while the richest 10 per cent owns 77.5 per cent of wealth - the highest proportion among developed regions globally. Furthermore, the median monthly household income of the top 10 per cent in 2014 was HK$95,000, while that of the lowest 10 per cent was HK$5,000. In other words, the lowest 10 per cent would need to work a year and seven months to make what those in the top 10 per cent earn in a month.

Eradicating extreme poverty and stopping climate change is possible within our lifetime, but real action must follow

The number of people who work but are barely paid enough to get by is in no way insignificant. Having steadily risen over the years, the number of people living in working poor households reached a staggering 647,500 last year. To address this, the government should review the minimum wage annually and scrap the Mandatory Provident Fund's offsetting mechanism to better protect workers' retirement funds.

Globally, we have seen some encouraging progress in poverty alleviation over the past 15 years. The Millennium Development Goal target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. China and India, the two most populous countries, succeeded in halving the number of people living in extreme poverty (which was previously defined as those who live on less than US$1.25 a day, and now increased to US$1.90). Laos and Cambodia have also seen their numbers drop substantially over the past decade.

These accomplishments are surely remarkable, but, as in Hong Kong, stark inequalities remain.

The Sustainable Development Goals - a set of ambitious plans to eradicate hunger and poverty by 2030 - were recently announced to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. Agreeing that inequality is an important obstacle to eradicating poverty, one of the new goals aims to reduce inequality within and among countries, and address a wider range of socio-economic differences. Under this goal, countries like Laos and Cambodia should make even greater progress if pro-poor policies are in place, such as microfinance for the poor, reachable markets for smallholder farmers, and equal access to economic resources for both men and women.

Above all, we should embrace inclusive development. It is the best way to lift the poorest people out of extreme poverty in the next 15 years, whereupon the Sustainable Development Goals are expected to be fulfilled.

READ MORE: Why equality matters in Southeast Asia's climate change fight

Climate change is another major hurdle in sustainable development that we cannot ignore. World leaders agreed in 2009 that 2 degrees Celsius is the maximum allowable increase in temperature that would help the world avert the catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change; in fact, many countries rightly demand a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Though we have not reached the 2-degree limit, the effects of climate change are already apparent. The mayhem caused by frequent natural disasters has harmed poor people's efforts to feed their families and overcome poverty, and could further undo the development progress made over the past decade if our attitude remains "business as usual".

What's more, climate change is both disproportionately and unfairly affecting the poor. Currently, the richest 7 per cent generates around half of the world's carbon emissions, while 50 per cent of the poorest generate only 7 per cent but are most affected by climate change.

It is clear that we must do much more to tackle climate change. Locally, among other measures, this could mean joining campaigns like Oxfam's "Behind the Brands" drive to put pressure on major food corporations to operate more sustainably and help reduce the impact of climate change. It could also mean reducing our energy consumption - which is a major contributor to local carbon emissions - and food waste.

Globally, we must quickly slash emissions and increase investment dramatically in climate change adaptation in the poorest communities while investing in renewable solutions.

Perhaps this is why hopes have been raised for the climate change conference in Paris that starts next month.

Many are watching in anticipation to see what new and ambitious post-2020 climate agreements will be made, and, most especially, how talks on the climate financing mechanism - which will help developing countries adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects - will pan out.

READ MORE: A focus on inequality and children's well-being will further our fight against poverty

Eradicating extreme poverty and stopping climate change is possible within our lifetime, but real action must follow to ensure that these talks and global goals and policies truly make a difference in the lives of the poorest.

To walk the talk, the United Nations, development banks, governments, the private sector - in fact everybody - must show perseverance in tackling inequality and climate change head-on, and set clear indicators of success to give poor people a fair chance at developing sustainable livelihoods.

Poverty and hunger can end with our generation, but to truly achieve a world without poverty, we must act together, and act now.

Mayling Chan is international programme director at Oxfam Hong Kong